Even the New York Times Ethicist (Randy Cohen) gets it…

An interesting post in the Ethicist Column from the March 11 2007 Sunday Times magazine section (yes I know it is Thursday and I am finally getting to it… in my house reading the Sunday Times is a week-long event) about whether one should include information gleaned from sites like FaceBook and MySpace or personal blogs when evaluating candidates…in this case, the individual posing the question was interviewing a high school student who was applying to his alma mater. The interviewer then “googled” the student’s name and some unsavory things emerged.

The Ethicist, imho, gets it when he says “Because such material will not be considered for most students, it is unfair to subject your interviews to this additional scrutiny” and my favorite: “Put down the mouse and step away from the computer. You should not Google these students in the first place, let alone make your dubious discoveries a factor in college acceptance.”


Just because you can Google someone does not mean that the information that comes up is accurate. Or complete. Case in point…I just “googled myself” in Google image search. Here is what came up:

barbara3.jpeg | barbara1.jpeg | barbara2.jpeg | barbara-4.jpeg |barbara5.jpeg

Guess what? Not a single one of the images tagged as me is me.

Goodness gracious. It seems so hypocritical when we in Academia feel we need to educate our students on how to be safe on line, and then we turn around and end up being their own worst nightmare by confusing access to their personal sites with license to dig deeper. We seem to be quick to slam Wikipedia (more on that later) for its inconsistencies, and yet we will stop dead in our tracks and consider anything as the Gospel if it means finding dirt on someone…

We all have some icky things rumbling around in our closets. The web now makes those things easier to find, but do we really have to look? Oh and by the way, is accessing Facebook to do that digging within the acceptable use policy of Facebook…? Some would say not. Some would say, as does The Ethicist, that you should just look away. But if we must look, have we lost our bearings to such an extent that we cannot discern that there may be a variety of realities out there for any one person… the good, the bad, and the oh my..?

At NAIS there was a wonderful keynote by Azar Nafisi in which she talked about the importance of schools as a place to create context for our students. She spoke eloquently about how our world is saturated with information, and yet as citizens we lack a compass, a context, a means to navigate in and around and through that information. Nafisi noted that this information overload has made us smug as a culture and as a result we have lost our ability to genuinely question our world around us. She argued passionately for schools to be the place to provide that context, but also a place to appreciate difference, to have empathy for others, and most importantly, to acknowledge that people and ideas and things have a variety of facets, not just that which comes up after a .21 second Google search.

Read the Ethicist’s article…and the follow up. And tell me what you think.

Barbara is a Lecturer in Hispanic Studies at a small liberal arts college in Maine. Rumor has it this was also her alma mater. She used to work for a small liberal arts college in the cornfields of Ohio for almost 20 years as a teacher and language center director. Prior to these adventures in higher ed she taught high school Spanish and loved it. She wishes she had more time in her life to play with her dogs, write, read, swim, do yoga things and making stuff out of clay. To see her online portfolio please click here!

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  1. Ryan · March 17, 2007 Reply

    Oh, how disappointing. I was just going to remark how dashing you look in that brown hat. 🙂

    I completely agree, we shouldn’t be looking, but let’s establish that there’s a difference between having “icky things rumbling around in [one’s] closet” and choosing to publish those icky things online for the world to see. Schools should focus on teaching the appropriateness of publishing certain information online (instead of just issuing blanket statements telling students not to do it). But … when? Does it start in elementary school? By middle school, many kids are already starting to establish an online profile. And who? Is that the responsibility of individual classroom teachers (in their copious free time), librarians (sometimes called media specialists), or someone else?

  2. Barbara · March 17, 2007 Reply

    I am rather fond of the wimple look actually, and am thinking of adopting it as my own…

  3. Sam Jackson · March 23, 2007 Reply

    I always assumed that my online presence was submerged beneath Samuel L Jackson stuff. But, google my name today, and my own site is the 4th result for ‘sam jackson.’ Not bad, I suppose. Reminded me to be careful with what I write, especially given my audience of so many college admissions people.

    I like to think that I’m also doing good by having my own site up there in the results, as it would suppress anything bad that did show up or, failing that, would provide an easy to find legitimate page.

  4. Barbara · March 23, 2007 Reply

    So Sam, if you did have something up there that you later found out prevented you from being selected by a college you might have wanted to attend, how would you respond? Should they have been looking there? Should they have talked with you about it? You case is an exceptional one, I think, because you do have such a presence on the web, and you are quite careful. But even still, what would you have wanted that college interviewer to have said to you in that situation?


  5. Jen · April 8, 2007 Reply

    I agree, it is hypocritical to question Wikipedia entries and then take MySpace entries as gospel. Nevertheless,kids must realize that some information is appropriate to launch into cyberspace and some information is better left unsaid. It all comes back to the old adage that if you want to keep a secret, tell no one.

    Still, it is the parents’ job to teach morals and social correctness, and too many parents are shipping their kids off to school or the outside world expecting such institutions to teach these things to their children.It’s a cop-out and there is no excuse for it.

  6. Barbara · April 15, 2007 Reply


    Thank you for your comment. I believe it is not only a parents’ job to teach “correctness” (in whatever form that may take based upon your family’s beliefs and ideals)but it is also the parents’ job to let them know that other adults see these tools as a quick and easy way to get salacious information about people in a very cowardly fashion. It reminds me of when I turned into a teenager and my mom told me that from that moment forward she would not be looking through my drawers or any other private spaces because she knew that there might be stuff there that would confuse or upset her. Far from being a coward, what she was actually saying to me was that she trusted our relationship was healthy enough that if I needed her, I could count on her being there.

    Trust and honesty.. 2 things that seem to be missing far too often from our daily interactions, with or without MySpace or FaceBook!

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